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      Ashton Coming to Pressure Israel and PA

      EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton arrived in Israel to pressure officials in Jerusalem and Ramallah to restart talks
      By Gabe Kahn.
      First Publish: 1/24/2012, 7:27 PM

      European Union foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton is coming to the Middle East in an effort to pressure Israelis and Palestinians to formally renew peace talks before the January 26 deadline set by international mediators.

      Ashton is scheduled to arrive at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on Tuesday and hold meetings over three days with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas. She also plans to visit a United Nations facility in Hamas-run Gaza.

      "The fact that negotiators are talking to each other face-to-face is encouraging," Ashton said in a statement.

      "I'll be looking for positive signs from both sides that they are prepared to turn this progress into real gestures and negotiations," she added.

      Israeli nationalists, however, are concerned that Ashton's 'real gestrures' has traditionally been code for 'Israeli concessions' with no reciprocal gestures forthcoming from the PA.

      Ashton is coming on behalf of the Quartet for Middle East Peace - the European Union, Russia, United Nations and United States - that asked officials in Jerusalem and Ramallah to come up with proposals for security arrangements and final borders before Jan. 26.

      French President Nicolas Sarkozy on January 20 said Ashton's plan to push for renewed negotiations was a vain effort, "The Quartet has failed. Let's stop kidding ourselves. We have to widen the circle of negotiations and involve everybody who can help resolve the conflict."

      A recent round of exploratory meetings between Israeli and PA negotiators in Amman, Jordan have resulted in continued deadlock as officials in Ramallah continue to insist Israel agree to a raft of preconditions before talks can begin.

      Abbas maintains Israel must agree to use the pre-1967 lines as borders for a future PA state, release all Arab terrorists from its prisons, and renew a building freeze in the 'disputed territories.'

      Israeli officials have refused saying the preconditions serve as a fait accompli to forestall talks and shift the blame to Israel while the PA continues to insist on making unilateral moves in contravention of the 1993 Oslo Accords.

      They note a previous 10-month building freeze by Israel aimed at drawing the PA back to the table was rebuffed not only with preconditions, but the unilateral PA statehood bid at the United Nations in September 2011.

      In December 2011, senior PLO officials announced they would embark on  "a strategy based on continuous efforts along with the international community to secure full recognition and full United Nations membership, pursuing internal reconciliation, and keeping up the popular resistance."

      Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu says he is ready to restart direct talks without preconditions from either side "anywhere, anytime."